IN A bizarre demand for sexual equality, Islamic women extremists are insisting that al-Qaeda gives them the right to become suicide bombers and terrorists.
Many women have responded with a mixture of anger and dismay to online advice from Osama bin Laden's right-hand man that they should keep to being housewives.
Ayman al-Zawahiri praised the wives of al-Qaeda terrorists and said they must "be ready for any service" their men might require.
But he declared that a woman's role must be limited to looking after the homes and children of fighters – and she should not travel to any war front without a male guardian.
Zawahiri's strong views on the subject are the result of both personal experience and religious beliefs. His first wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a US airstrike in the Afghan city Kandahar in 2001.
"I tell you I have tasted the bitterness of American brutality: my favourite wife's chest was crushed by a concrete ceiling," he said.
Zawahiri – the terror group's second in command – insisted there were no women in al-Qaeda, ignoring the fact that women in the terror network's Iraq branch have carried out or attempted at least 20 suicide bombings since 2003.
Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, is open about using women fighters and disagrees with Zawahiri. At least 11 Palestinian women have launched suicide attacks in recent years.
Extremist websites have been buzzing with complaints from women extremists about Zawahiri's comments.
One woman calling herself Rabeebat al-Silah (Arabic for Companion of Weapons) wrote a long letter of complaint online. "How many times have I wished I were a man," she says.
"When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri said that there are no women in al-Qaeda, he saddened and hurt me. I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest."
Another, using the pen-name Ossama2001, said that Zawahiri's words "opened old wounds" and she pleaded with God to liberate women so they can participate in holy war.
A magazine for women who want to become fighters has even appeared online and carries articles on terrorist training camps for the fairer sex.
The main feature in its first issue – which came with a hot pink cover and gold lettering – was called the "biography of a female mujahedeen".
It proclaimed: "We will stand, covered by our veils and wrapped in our robes, weapons in hand, our children in our laps, with the Quran and the Sunna (sayings) of the Prophet of Allah directing and guiding us."
Terrorism experts believe there are no women in the core leadership ranks around bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. But beyond that core, al-Qaeda is really a movement with loosely linked offshoots in various countries and sympathisers who may not play a direct role.
Women are clearly among these sympathisers, and some are part of the offshoots.
"A lot of the girls I speak to … want to carry weapons. They live with this great frustration and oppression," said Huda Naim, a women's leader, Hamas member and Palestinian politician in Gaza. "We don't have a special wing for women but that doesn't mean we strip women of the right to go to jihad."
Al-Zawahiri's words show the fine line al-Qaeda walks in terms of public relations.
In a modern Arab world where women work even in some conservative countries, al-Qaeda's attitude could hurt its efforts to win over the Muslim public at large.
THE first-known suicide attack by a woman was carried out in Lebanon on April 9, 1985.
Sana'a Mehaidli, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, detonated an explosive-laden vehicle, killing two Israeli soldiers and injuring two more.
Subsequently, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka have most often made use of women in suicide attacks, with up to 40 per cent of bombings carried out by females.
In one of their highest profile attacks, Thenmuli Rajaratnam killed Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991, in the Indian town of Sriperumbudur.
Suicide attacks by mothers remain rare. On January 14, 2004, Reem Riyashi, a Palestinian mother of two from Gaza City, killed herself and four Israelis.
Riyashi was the first female suicide bomber sent by Hamas, whose spiritual leader at the time, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, had initially objected to the involvement of women.
In a videotaped message prior to her "martyrdom operation", Riyashi said that since age 13 she had dreamed of turning "my body into deadly shrapnel against the Zionists".
She continued: "I always wanted to be the first woman to carry out a martyrdom operation, where parts of my body can fly all over ... God has given me two children. I love them (with] a kind of love that only God knows, but my love to meet God is stronger still."